ARLINGTON, Va. -- The history of women in the American military often evokes images of battlefield nurses ministering to the wounded. But it is also the story of people like Mildred Cipolla, a Navy petty officer during the Korean War. She wanted to fight but wasn't allowed.
"They still had prejudice," said Ms. Cipolla, who served as a stockroom supply worker at a base in Corpus Christi, Texas. "I wanted to go; I was ready.
"I would have fought in the Persian Gulf but I was too old," she said with a grim smile that showed her disappointment.
Ms. Cipolla, along with the 1.8 million other women who have served in the military from the Revolutionary War through the Persian Gulf war, were recognized yesterday at the groundbreaking for the Women's Memorial at Arlington Cemetery. The memorial, to open in 1997, will bestow what many said was belated recognition of generations of heroines.
The monument "makes a long-overdue payment on a debt that we will never fully repay," President Clinton said at the ceremony. "A debt we owe to generations of women who will dedicate their own lives in defense of our freedom."
Mr. Clinton used the occasion to try to rally support for affirmative action programs, which have come under fire from Republicans in Congress. Many of those programs are intended to benefit women.
"The United States military is one of the strongest in the world because it has found a way to make use of every American," said the president, who was joined on the dais by Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary William J. Perry.
"We must continue to make the most of every American" without consideration of race or gender.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, honorary chairwoman of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, which has overseen the planning of the memorial, invited the crowd of about 4,000 to join her in recognizing the female veterans "as we guarantee our country remain the strongest in the world."
The uncompleted Grand Entrance of the cemetery will be repaired and serve as a facade for the memorial. A glass wall will allow light inside the memorial, which will include a Hall of Honor and an educational center with exhibits and artifacts. There will also be a computerized registry of female veterans.
Of 1.1 million living past or present servicewomen -- at least 31,000 of whom live in Maryland, including 3,400 in Baltimore -- information on only 125,000 has so far been collected.
Lt. Kay Kelley, a Navy nurse on active duty at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, said the monument was long overdue, "especially for those in the military who sacrificed their lives and didn't get any recognition at all."